My team, the Boston Red Sox, are entering the third season of what I like to think of as their rebuilding phase. After they won the 2004 World Series, they lost three key players (Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Johnny Damon) to free agency, and only retained Jason Varitek by handing him a large 4-year contract.
It’s been a rough couple of years: Two of their big free agent investments – SS Edgar Renteria and SP Matt Clement – have not really panned out. Clement is mired in a cycle of injury and ineffectiveness that leaves me wondering if he’ll ever be useful again. Renteria was shipped out after one season in a pair of trades that resulted in Coco Crisp patrolling center field (which isn’t such a bad thing). Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez and Trot Nixon have continued to age, David Ortiz has continued to be one of the best hitters in baseball, and the Sox brought in Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell from Florida, and while Lowell had a bounceback season, Beckett was very uneven.
The Sox have developed some in-house talent, such as Dustin Pedroia, Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester, and there’s more in the pipeline. Nonetheless, they did have some work to do this year, and here’s the scorecard so far:
- Trot Nixon, OF (free agent)
- Mark Loretta, 2B (free agent)
- Alex Gonzalez, SS (free agent, to the Reds)
- Keith Foulke, RP (free agent)
- Gabe Kapler, OF (retired)
- Daisuke Matsuzaka, SP (Japanese free agent, 6 years, $52M + $52M posting fee)
- J.D. Drew, OF (free agent, 5 years, $70M, from the Dodgers)
- Julio Lugo, SS (free agent, 3 years, $36M, from the Dodgers)
- Runelvys Hernandez, SP (free agent, minor league contract, from the Royals)
- Brendan Donnelly, RP (acquired in trade from the Angels)
- J.C. Romero, RP (free agent, 1 year, $1.6M, from the Angels)
- Hideki Okajima, RP (Japanese free agent, 2 years, $2.5M)
- Tim Wakefield, SP (option picked up)
- Alex Cora, SS (free agent, 2 years, $4M)
- Doug Mirabelli, C (free agent, 1 year, $0.75M)
I find it very hard to evaluate Red Sox transactions: With the second-largest payroll in baseball, they’re not quite playing the same budget-oriented game as most other teams. Is that Drew contract overpaying for an injury-prone outfielder, or is it a straightforward investment within the Sox’ budget? These last few years, I’ve found it easier on my brain to ignore the dollar signs and just evaluate the talent.
Because budget is only one constraint that baseball teams have to live within: The others are roster constraints (you can only have so many players on your team before you have to start cutting some to make room for others), and positional constraints (“You have to have a catcher because if you don’t you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls”, but of course most catchers can’t hit). So we can always consider whether the Sox have acquired good players, and look like they’re going to play their best players.
Anyway, with the Red Sox’ payroll and the savvy of their front office, they’re practically guaranteed make plenty of off-season headlines. That makes the winter almost as exciting for Sox fans as finishing below second place for the first time since 1997.
The Sox blew away all the competition in the $52M posting fee for the exclusive rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka (thus ensuring that the posting system will probably be overhauled if not scrapped next year), and then signed him to what I think is a surprisingly reasonable deal. One projection rates Matsuzaka as a very good starting pitcher in the Majors; if true, then he could be the true ace the Sox will need once Curt Schilling retires. If Beckett can work out his problems, then the Sox could have a nice rotation for the next few years.
Although, in 2007 the back end of the rotation is a bit of a concern, with Clement’s status unclear, Jon Lester recovering from cancer, and Wakefield at that age where he might collapse any year (he turned 40 in August, after all). Ace closer Jon Papelbon is slated to move into the rotation, but one wonders whether he might be more valuable in the bullpen, especially if he can’t make the transition smoothly. Still, the Sox are also bringing in several new bullpen arms, so they have options.
On the offensive side, the Sox are working through a bumpy negotiation process over J.D. Drew, who is a very good hitter with a length history of injury problems, and who’s had trouble passing his physical to finalize the deal. Whether Drew continues to be an offensive force through age 35 is a good question; it’s hard to say whether I’d be sad whether he finally gets signed or not. He’d probably be an upgrade over Trot Nixon in right field overall, though, and he supposedly can play center, too.
The Sox also brought in Julio Lugo, who is a pretty good shortstop. That’s a lot of money for a guy who looks to me like he might start a sharp decline at any time. But I think the Sox have soured on Pedroia at shortstop, which leaves them with few options for starter (and Alex Cora shouldn’t be one of them), so it might be their best option. Besides, if Lugo doesn’t completely go into the tank, then the trade market for fair-to-middling shortstops should be as strong as it has been in the last few years and the Sox could flip him for something useful.
It sounds like Pedroia might slot as the starter at second base, while some sort of Lowell/Ortiz/Kevin Youkilis tandem (plus whatever other spare hitters they can scrounge up) ought to be able to cover 3B, 1B and DH perfectly well.
In their third place finish in 2006, the Sox were outscored on the season, and finished 86-76. The Yankees might regress somewhat next year, but the Sox still need to improve to win their division. Matsuzaka, Drew and Lugo will help (assuming everyone’s healthy and performs up to their expected levels), so they’ll probably be a better team overall. But I think the Yankees will need to regress substantially for the Sox to make it a horse race. The Blue Jays are a pretty good team, too, but I suspect they’re going to regress a bit in 2007 as well.
All of which adds up to more of what we’ve seen lately: A Sox team which hasn’t quite gelled, but which feels like it’s on the cusp of being an AL powerhouse again. This is a team which could surprise in 2007, but after the World championship, I’d figured a 3-year rebuilding period was in order, so look for the Sox to work through a few more bumps and emerge in 2008.
Which is not to say that I’d be sad if they emerge a year earlier than I expect!